ABC’s Stumptown is the scuzzy private eye show we need right now

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 22 through 28 is “Forget It Dex, It’s Stumptown,” the pilot of ABC’s new private eye series Stumptown.

Pity the network TV pilot in the age of streaming.

Increasingly, it feels like an archaic form that exists primarily to show off its limitations. And as a fan of art that finds a way to express something human and true amid the constraints of limitation, I still love a good network TV pilot. But watching a good one still feels slightly like hanging out with the best sonnet writer in the age of beat poetry — you get why they’re so into the form they’ve chosen, but the explosion of freedom on another stage feels so much more vital.

Still, let me stick up for the idea that sometimes, a TV episode that has to work around commercial breaks and content standards and a presumed mass audience (instead of the smaller niches that can be chased elsewhere) can be very good indeed. And in a fall TV season that’s filled with surprisingly solid new shows, there’s no network pilot that does as good a job at working within those restrictions as Stumptown, ABC’s new private eye show starring Cobie Smulders.

It’s my favorite network pilot of the year, and I think it hits all three marks of a good network drama pilot. Let’s count those marks down one by one.

1) A compelling central character, with compelling relationships

Dex goes to Michael Ealy’s house for a hook-up.

Dex has a self-destructive streak a mile long.

The biggest advantage in Stumptown’s corner is that it stars Smulders as Dex Parios, who used to be in the military and is now slouching her way around Portland, Oregon, and through the rest of her life. (The title of Stumptown refers to Portland and not the coffee, but I’ve met so many people who assumed that Cobie Smulders is promoting the coffee that maybe the name — taken from the graphic novel the show is based on — should have been changed.)

The first time we meet Dex, it’s as a prisoner of two goons. She’s trapped in the trunk of a car, and we actually meet her captors first, as they drive merrily on their way, convinced they’ve solved their Dex Parios problem. But she fights her way out of the trunk, then causes the car to fly through some guardrails and into the air. (I’ll leave precisely how all of this happens to you to find out, because it’s so fun.) Then, the episode flashes back three days.

This sort of flashback usually strikes me as unnecessary, and it’s probably the weakest element of Stumptown’s pilot. But it does get us invested in Dex — the kind of woman who can figure out a way out of a seemingly impossible situation — in a way that gives the episode breathing room to settle in and explain just who this woman is and what she does.

Dex has a knotty web of relationships, it turns out, including her best friend (Jake Johnson), police officer fuck frenemy (Michael Ealy), younger brother (Cole Sibus), and the mother of her dead boyfriend (Tantoo Cardinal). All of these relationships are elegantly sketched in by writer Jason Richman, and Dex’s self-destructive streak powers almost all of them. These are people who know how to deal with her, whether she likes it or not.

All of these elements were laid out in the pages of the graphic novels that Stumptown is based on, which give the series something to build off of. But it’s Richman and Smulders who take the character and make her the kind of scuzzy PI we rarely see on TV anymore.

Speaking of which …

2) It’s got an engaging story that’s alternately twisty and easy to follow

The moment when I knew Stumptown had me was when Dex, seeking a missing girl, tracked down the girl’s friend, then feinted that she had left before sneaking back up on the friend (who had since placed a phone call to the maybe-not-so-missing girl) and tackling her to get the phone. It’s a perfect blend of character, story, and action — and a pretty funny gag to boot.

The biggest problem with all network pilots is the reams of exposition they require, as broadcast networks rarely trust that audiences will just stick with a show they don’t understand immediately. (For an example of a network pilot where the showrunners have earned enough latitude from their network to try some weird stuff that doesn’t immediately make sense, check out CBS’s Evil, from Robert and Michelle King of The Good Wife fame.) Stumptown isn’t immune from massive amounts of exposition, to be clear, and there are a few too many points in this pilot where Dex tells us exactly what she’s feeling and thinking, or where she explains her back story.

But the case she’s investigating turns out to be twisty and surprising enough that I’m willing to sit through some scenes that set up Dex’s back story in clumsy fashion. It has a few big reversals, but it also allows for plenty of character interaction that introduces Dex’s world to us. And it sets a rough template for what the show will be going forward — a crime-solving show, but from the ground up, not the top down.

3) It has a world I haven’t seen on TV before (or, at least, recently)

Dex visits the mother of her dead boyfriend.

Several scenes are set in a tribal casino.

The most obvious reference point for Stumptown is the terrific 1974-1980 NBC drama The Rockford Files, where James Garner played a PI who found himself constantly taking cases among the scumbums of LA. It was a crackerjack show with a great lead performance, a scuzzy vibe, and some strong mysteries. It’s easy to see why Stumptown has drawn comparisons. (Honestly, I’ve made them myself.)

But Stumptown has two pretty fascinating differences. For one thing, it’s about a woman, which instantly shifts many of the show’s interactions. (At one point, Dex gets the hell beaten out of her by a criminal she’s pursuing.) But beyond even the added ways that Dex might not be welcome in spaces where Rockford was, there’s a knottiness to Stumptown’s portrayal of Dex as a woman who’s Seen Some Shit and is, thus, struggling to keep her head above water. This is not a new archetype for the detective drama, but seeing not just an actress but an actress of Smulders’ caliber playing the part zaps the show into life.

But the second difference that keeps Stumptown a cut above is that it’s set in Portland itself, the kind of city that is rarely the setting for a cop drama like this. The show makes use of a local tribal casino for much of its storytelling, and it features a working-class vibe that nicely captures the way a city once built around blue collar folks has given way to endless growth among the sorts of young folks who might confuse “Stumptown” for a coffee instead of an actual town. In that aspect, the show reminded me of FX’s lamented one-season show Terriers, which took place in the similarly scruffy corners of San Diego.

And, look, maybe Stumptown will immediately fall apart. I’ve only seen one episode, and pilots like these have led to shows that break my heart many, many times. But if you’re looking for something that has the unique blend of familiarity and innovation that a really good network pilot can offer, that balancing of the restrictions of the form with a show that wants to try something new, check out Stumptown. I think you’ll be happy you did.

Stumptown airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on ABC. The pilot is available on Hulu.